Imran Khan’s call, Hoodbhoy’s comments and Pakistan’s 1971

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 19:57, Oct 06, 2019 | Updated : 20:10, Oct 06, 2019

Syed Badrul AhsanQuite a good deal of comment as also cynicism has been generated by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent telephonic call to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Coming in the wake of the deteriorating state of diplomatic relations between the two countries, it was quite natural for people in Dhaka to be taken by surprise by the call. Note was also taken that the Pakistani leader’s call inquiring after Sheikh Hasina’s health came on the eve of her departure on an official visit to Delhi. Quite a few saw in the call an ulterior motive, and among them some dug up, very correctly, certain negative comments about Bangladesh ascribed to Imran Khan in his cricket playing days.
Where the sentiments of Pakistanis regarding Bangladesh are the issue, much can be said and equally much can be written. One might as well begin with Imran Khan, who in recent years has clearly had some rethinking about Bangladesh. In his days in political opposition in Islamabad, he appeared on quite a few talk shows on Pakistani television channels to argue that the actions of the Pakistan army in Bangladesh in 1971 had put all Pakistanis to shame. This is a matter of record, which is perhaps a good reason why Khan chose to phone Sheikh Hasina last week. Of course, such calls have a dash of diplomacy attached to them, which is only normal. But the Pakistani leader’s gesture ought not to be underplayed and should be studied for the significance it carries.
There have been other Pakistanis who have properly felt contrite at the doings of their army in Bangladesh forty eight years ago. Air Marshal Asghar Khan, who died not long ago, was to the end of his life a politician who believed that the Yahya Khan regime’s act of cutting off negotiations with the Awami League and incarcerating Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in March 1971 signalled the death of Pakistan as it had been created in 1947. He was to be proved right. When one brings into the picture the respected Pakistani academic and political analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy, one knows that there are people in Pakistan among whom a reservoir of sympathy and support for Bengalis, in light of the genocide they were subjected to by Pakistan’s marauding army, is to be noticed.
At the recent Islamabad Literature Festival, Hoodbhoy bluntly informed his audience that the two-nation theory on which Pakistan had been created was as good as dead and 1971 was proof of it. He did not fail to demonstrate, at that conference, the clear differences in political priorities in Dhaka and Islamabad. While coins in Pakistan carried the image of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, a dig at the communal structure of the country, those in Bangladesh portrayed images of little boys and little girls reading books together. That, for Hoodbhoy, was a sign of the elevated politics on which Bangladesh was grounded in comparison with perspectives in his country. His fellow Pakistanis making up the audience broke into applause.
But not all Pakistani men and women of prominence have had the liberality of comprehending what Bangladesh went through at the hands of their soldiers back in 1971. School textbooks in Pakistan have in the nearly half century which has gone by since the emergence of Bangladesh continued to give children a wrong and prejudiced idea of the 1971 war. There are whole classes of Pakistani politicians and academics who have refused to analyse the issues leading up to the conflict in 1971. Their parochial assessment has been self-defeating, for they have considered Bangladesh’s War of Liberation an Indian conspiracy forged in association with Bengali ‘secessionists’, in the process not calling on the boldness in themselves to remember that it was the Yahya Khan regime’s repudiation of the results of the general election of December 1970, with the active connivance of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which was the cause of the crisis.
One wonders if Imran Khan can go a bold step further and inform the world that Pakistan has the will and the capacity to express its unconditional apology to Bangladesh over the horrible acts of murder, rape and pillage committed by its army in 1971. TV GRABThere is the curious story of the somersault of Roedad Khan over the Bangladesh issue. In March 1971, he was secretary in Pakistan’s ministry of information and was present in Dhaka all the way till the army cracked down on the Bengalis. Early on the morning of 26 March, as Brigadier A.R. Siddiqi, at the time chief of Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistan army, reports in his book on the crisis, an ebullient Roedad Khan made his way to the room in the Dhaka cantonment where Tikka Khan, Khadim Hussain Raja and other military officers were busy savouring breakfast. Across the city, Bengalis were being murdered by the army. A beaming Roedad Khan told the officers, ‘Yaar, imaan taaza ho gaya’ (friends, faith has been revived).
An ageing Roedad Khan has over the years been saying something quite different, though. Appearing on Pakistani television channels on the anniversary of Pakistan’s fall on 16 December 1971, he holds Bhutto responsible for the disaster. He also states, improbably, that he urged Yahya Khan in March 1971 to go for a negotiated end to the political stalemate in Dhaka. That a bureaucrat, no matter how highly placed, will take the liberty of advising a powerful military dictator on the means of arriving at a solution to a purely political crisis is hard to understand. Not even the all-powerful Altaf Gauhar, in an earlier time, would advise Ayub Khan on a probable approach to a political issue. But here is Roedad Khan, trapped between his March 1971 happiness and his 21st century recollections of the past.
Imran Khan’s gesture of calling Sheikh Hasina is of course to be appreciated. But one wonders if he can go a bold step further and inform the world that Pakistan has the will and the capacity to express its unconditional apology to Bangladesh over the horrible acts of murder, rape and pillage committed by its army in 1971. That is not likely, given that no Pakistani politician would like to incur the wrath of an army confronted with internal censure over the actions of an earlier generation of soldiers. It brings to mind the repeated appeals made to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Dr. Kamal Hossain by the Bhutto government in the course of the April 1974 tripartite talks involving Delhi, Dhaka and Islamabad to let the 195 Pakistani military officers listed for war crimes trials in Bangladesh go free and face a trial process conducted by Islamabad itself. Of course, nothing came of that promise, but it is significant to remember that Bhutto’s people told Bangabandhu’s government that if the officers were put on trial in Dhaka, the Pakistan army, despite its humiliation in Bangladesh, would overthrow the civilian government in Islamabad.
But this continued failure on Pakistan’s part to offer an apology to Bangladesh has continued to stymie efforts for productive diplomatic relations between the two countries. Some years ago, the precipitate manner in which the Nawaz Sharif government adopted a resolution in Pakistan’s national assembly condemning the trials of local war criminals in Bangladesh was a restating of Islamabad’s feeling that it was far from expressing any contrition for the genocide perpetrated in 1971. The mindset remains as unchanged today as it was in the early 1970s, when a visibly angry Bhutto, visiting Bangladesh in June 1974, refused to doff his cap at the National Memorial for Martyrs in Savar and refused to make any comment in the visitors’ book. He pushed the book away with the sneering statement, “Enough of this nonsense.”
Some Pakistani leaders have engaged in a careful play of words over their attitudes to Bangladesh. Visiting the National Memorial in 1985, General Ziaul Haque told the Bangladesh media, “Your heroes are our heroes.” That was mystifying. No one asked him how the Bengalis who had been murdered by his country’s soldiers could be his country’s heroes. It was a shrewd way of evading any clear statement of apology on his part. Years later, the next Pakistani military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, expressed his regret over what had happened in 1971. Expressions of regret are not the same as expressions of apology. Musharraf got away with his remark. Benazir Bhutto, who had the dubious distinction of believing everything her father wrote to her in 1971 on the Bangladesh situation and dismissing every media report on the killings by the army as international propaganda against Pakistan, made a brief visit to Bangladesh in the times of General Ershad to meet a ‘pir’ whose predictions she had been impressed with. She never made any comment on 1971, not then, not in her years in office or in opposition.
Imran Khan’s civility in calling the Bangladesh Prime Minister ought to be appreciated for the spirit in which it was made. For his part, he can on his people’s behalf --- and that is if the military does not come in his way --- go for more substantive ties with Bangladesh through taking the steps his predecessors did not or would not take. Germany and Japan have apologized many times over for the atrocities their soldiers committed in Europe and Asia during the Second World War and are today full, respected players on the global stage. Pakistan can take a leaf out of their book.
Pakistanis do not have to follow in the footsteps of the army officer who stormed out of the room when Pervez Hoodbhoy spoke at the Islamabad Literature Festival of Bangladesh, of 1971, of the demise of the two-nation theory.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the author of biographies of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad and writes on politics and diplomacy.

***The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions and views of Bangla Tribune.